Camille Paglia Discusses Her War on 'Elitist Garbage' and Contemporary Feminism
In an interview about her new essay collection, the professor and controversial feminist discusses the failure of feminists on college campuses, why men deserve more credit for their labor, and how Sheryl Sandberg is "smug and entitled."
Photo by Michael Lionstar, courtesy of Pantheon Books
For five years, art history professor and controversial pro-sex feminist Camille Paglia has been quiet—at least by the standards she set in the 1990s when she sparked controversy for everything from questioning the existence of date rape to hailing Madonna as "the future of feminism." During the Obama era, she published one book and occasional viral essays, like her Sunday Times cover story about how Rihanna is the new Princess Diana. Most her time revolved around teaching at the University of the Arts and studying artifacts from Native American tribes who lived in southeastern Pennsylvania 10,000 years ago. This week, though, Paglia returns with a new book, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, and Feminism, collecting her greatest hits about gender, sex, and feminism from 1990 to 2016.
The collection includes an essay about Nefertiti from Paglia's 700-page 1990 tome Sexual Personae, a 2014 lecture about the strength of southern women in the country, an ode to the Real Housewives, and multiple essays about diminishing free speech on college campuses. Throughout the book, Paglia laments how the mainstream feminist movement has revolved around educated white women and forgotten working class women—and men, like the sanitation workers whom she believes do not receive enough credit for their dangerous work. (More on that later.) Together, the essays argue that for women to be free, men must be free too.
Paglia's timing could not be better. Over the past two years, she has become a recurring influence for some of the internet's most divisive figures. Beauty provocateur Cat Marnell cites the sex-positive 90s feminist as an inspiration for her critically acclaimed, instant New York Times bestseller How to Murder Your Life, while Milo Yiannopoulos and his former employer Breitbart have regularly quoted Paglia to justify their opinions. Paglia, of course, has always dismissed critics who have labeled her a conservative. In an email, she declined to discuss Breitbart and several other topics, including Kim Kardashian, saying she didn't have enough time. Last week, she told Metro Weekly, "I haven't been paying any attention to [Yiannopoulos] particularly," and on a 2012 episode of Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, she called Kim Kardashian a "cliché."
Much of Free Women, Free Men's essays are far from cliché, unlike the Kardashian clan. They're polemical, thought-provoking, enraging, funny, and brave. And today they sound prescient, as Molly Fischer wrote last week in a New York magazine profile of the author. Before President Donald Trump thrust the nation into debates about liberals forgetting white working class Americans in the Midwest and South, the failures of contemporary feminism, and free speech on college campus (see: Middlebury College students turning violent over controversial author Charles Murray speaking on campus last week), Paglia was discussing all these topics. Whether you agree or disagree with Paglia (and many people have made strong arguments in disagreement), she has always understood the country while other experts did not.
In an interview conducted over email, Paglia opened up about her new book, her successes and failures, and how the Village People show how to honor working class men. This interview has been edited and condensed.
BROADLY: Your book is called Free Women, Free Men. Why do you believe men need to be free for women to be free?
Camille Paglia: My primary inspiration since adolescence has been the thrilling decades of the 1920s and 30s, following American women gaining the right to vote in 1920. There were so many major women figures entering the professions—like my idols Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn, who were determined to show that women could achieve at the same level as men. The bold new women of that period did not insult or denigrate men. They admired what men had done and simply demanded the opportunity to show that women could match or surpass it. One of my persistent quarrels with second-wave feminism is how male-bashing became its default mode from the start. Movements often attract fanatics or borderline personalities, and that's exactly what happened. Too many damaged women with bitter gripes against men took over feminist discourse. Kate Millett was a prime example—her life has been an endless series of mental breakdowns and hospitalizations.
What I'm saying in Free Women, Free Men is that women can never be truly free until they let men too be free—which means that men have every right to determine their own identities, interests, and passions without intrusive surveillance and censorship by women with their own political agenda. For example, if there is an official Women's Center on the Yale University campus (which there is), then there should be a Men's Center too—and Yale men should be free to carry on and carouse there and say whatever the hell they want to each other, without snoops outside the door ready to report them to the totalitarian sexual harassment office.
The book argues that construction workers and other working class men's work have gone unnoticed. How has society ignored their contributions to society?
It is an absolute outrage how so many pampered, affluent, upper-middle-class professional women chronically spout snide anti-male feminist rhetoric, while they remain completely blind to the constant labor and sacrifices going on all around them as working-class men create and maintain the fabulous infrastructure that makes modern life possible in the Western world. Only a tiny number of women want to enter the trades where most of the nitty-gritty physical work is actually going on—plumbing, electricity, construction. Women have played virtually no role in the erection of those magnificent towers in every major city in the world. It's men who operate the cranes or set the foundations or wash windows on the 85th floor. It's men who troop out at 2:00 AM during an ice storm to restore power to neighborhoods where falling trees have brought down live wires. It's men who mix the stinking, toxic cauldrons to spread steaming hot tar on city roofs. Last year in a nearby town, I drove by a huge, chaotic scene where emergency workers in hazmat suits were struggling with a giant pipe break, as raw sewage was pouring into the street. Of course all those workers up to their knees in a torrent of thick brown water were men! I've seen figures indicating that 92 per cent of people killed on the job are men—and it's precisely because men are heroically doing most of the dangerous jobs in modern society. The bourgeois blindness of feminist leaders to low-status working-class labor by men is morally corrupt! Gay men, on the other hand, have always shown their awed admiration of working-class masculinity and fortitude. It's no coincidence that a buff construction worker in a hard hat was one of the iconic personae of the gay disco group, the Village People, during the Studio 54 era!
What could feminists learn from country women?
Published for the first time in my new book is "Southern Women: Old Myths and New Frontiers," a lecture I gave to the Honors College Convocation at the University of Mississippi in 2014. I focus on three Southern archetypes: the old mountain woman, the mammy, and the Southern belle. One of the themes running through my book is the excessively bourgeois or white middle-class assumptions of so much feminist thought today. For example, I find Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg insufferably smug and entitled. I thought her bestselling book, Lean In, was utterly dishonest in failing to acknowledge how the affluent lifestyle of women executives like herself requires a rotating squad of servants and nannies, whom she has carefully kept invisible. I argue that country women of the agrarian era were physically and mentally stronger than today's high-profile, feminism-spouting women careerists, doing their Pilates and spinning routines at the pricey gym. Country women had big voices and big attitudes—it's something that I observed myself as a child among the immigrant Italian women in the factory town of Endicott, New York where I was born. The elderly Italian women, often widows dressed in black, were tough and fearless. Don't get in their way, or they would knock you down—or deafen you with a voice that could cut through walls! One of my favorite scenes in all movies is the first moment we see Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind: she's leaning out a second-floor window at Tara and yelling at Scarlett—a whole scolding litany at top volume. It sweeps me right back to my childhood—because that's exactly the bossy way the Italian country women behaved, including my own beloved maternal grandmother. The great irony is that too many of today's privileged white middle-class girls at elite schools can't seem to express themselves forcefully enough even to manage their own dating lives. They have to run to parental proxies on campus grievance committees to intervene for them. This isn't feminism—it's neurosis and hysteria.
How should young people preserve free speech?
Stand up, speak out, and refuse to be silenced! But identify the real source of oppression, which is embedded in the increasingly byzantine structure of higher education. Push back against the nanny-state college administrators who subject you to authoritarian surveillance and undemocratic thought control! I sent up a prophetic warning shot about this in my 1992 article, "The Corruption of the Humanities in the US," which was published in London and is reprinted in my new book. The rapid, uncontrolled spread of overpaid administrators on college campuses over the past 30 years has marginalized the faculty, downgraded education, and converted students into marketing tools. Administrators are locked in a mercenary commercial relationship with tuition-paying parents and in a coercive symbiosis with intrusive regulators of the federal government. Young people have been far too passive about the degree to which their lives are being controlled by commissars of social engineering who pay lip service to liberalism but who are at root Stalinist autocrats who despise and suppress individualism. There is no excuse whatever for the grotesque rise in tuition costs, which has bankrupted families and imposed crippling debt on students trying to start their lives. When will young people wake up to the connection between rampant student debt and the administrator-sanctioned suppression of free speech on campus? Follow the money—the yellow brick road leads to the new administrator master class.
I find Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg insufferably smug and entitled.
In 1992 you told Daniel Richler you were going to push post-structuralists "into the sea." Did you succeed?
I did not succeed! Even though I helped scuttle Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, post-structuralism centered on Michel Foucault has continued to spread like a plague through North American universities, and it has even reached multiracial Brazil, which up until now has always had a far superior sexual system to our own. In Free Women, Free Men, I reprint a long piece I wrote in 2013 for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where I reviewed three new books by young women academics about the hot new trend of bondage and domination. It was shocking to find so much current evidence of the intolerable tyranny of post-structuralist professors sucking the life's blood out of idealistic young teachers and writers. This elitist garbage has destroyed the humanities. Post-structuralists are ignorant fakes. They know so little about high-level intellectual history that they truly think that Foucault invented the major ideas they hail him for. He was a thief who concealed his real sources (such as Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman). Foucault was a cynical game-player who knew literally nothing about any period or discipline before the French Revolution. The army of humanities professors who fell hard for Foucault are pitifully naïve. I don't give a damn about them—but they should be punished with derision and loss of reputation for their amoral destruction of the next generation of scholars.
In the book, you call yourself a pornographer. Some of America's most influential pornographers, Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt, are aging toward death. What will be their legacy?
Although he's been off the cultural map for decades, Hugh Hefner was one of the major pioneers of the sexual revolution, and history will honor him accordingly. To tag him as an antediluvian sexist would be quite wrong, because he was in the very forefront of redefining masculinity in the period following World War Two. Men's magazines were all about hunting, fishing, or war—traditional male pursuits. Hefner, a descendant of New England puritans, projected a new, sophisticated model of masculinity, more in the urbane European style. He showed that a real man could appreciate fine tailoring and state-of-the-art stereo gear, as well as wine, cuisine, and sex. America had always been a practical, can-do nation, where work was a religion. Hefner elevated the pleasure principle—Playboy wasn't just about sex! As for Larry Flynt, his importance at the time was his celebration of working-class populism, with its rude, crude, taboo-breaking sexual tastes and humor. But Flynt is merely a footnote to Hefner's epic saga.
Throughout your career you have stated controversial opinions about subjects. Many people wouldn't dare share these opinions out of fear. What scares Camille Paglia?
Freedom is my ultimate value. Hence I cannot stand feeling confined or trapped—as in long, sluggish airport lines. I fear being stuck for hours on the tarmac, as a file of 30 weather-delayed planes inches toward take-off. I'm a driver—I love my car, where I can be free as the wind! Air travel these days is like being caught in a mass flight of ragged, hollow-eyed refugees from war-torn Berlin.